Apr 30, 2009 3:53pm
Interview with Billy
Bill Kreutzmann Finds His Marbles
It is hard to a remember a time since the death of Jerry Garcia when The Dead has spent so much time in the spotlight. In addition to playing President Obama’s inauguration, the group has appeared on both The Late Show with David Letterman and The View, lent Bob Weir and Phil Lesh to the Allman Brothers Band for a performance and surprised New Yorkers by cramming three, free shows into one busy Manhattan night. The band also recently kicked off its first extensive tour since 2004 and will headline the second annual Rothbury festival this summer. A few days into The Dead’s arena tour, founding drummer Bill Kreutzmann spent some time with Jambands.com, discussing the group’s increasingly diverse setlists, his studio plans and a recent trip to the White House’s own taper section.
The Dead played a series of free New York shows before hitting the road earlier this month. What initially sparked the idea for these free gigs?
We just wanted to let people know that we're still the same old Grateful Dead, and we wanted to make them realize that we have nothing to do with scalping whatsoever—one of our most hated things is this scalping thing, and it should be made illegal and made impossible some way. There should be some clever design where people can't scalp tickets. Maybe people should have their name and number on the ticket because I just hate people taking advantage of our fans just so they can make money. The whole point of the thing is giving music out as cheaply as possible, its not about charging the most you can, that's never been the Grateful Dead's motif, you know?
I definitely agree. Can you walk us through what that day was like for a member of The Dead?
We actually had time for dinner. It was fun, we did the first show and did pretty well we thought. It was all backlined equipment, but we still had fun playing. You know, when you’re getting to play live for people, it was just like when we first started, when we played Magoo's Pizza Parlor way back in '65. The people are standing close to you, and it's not a big auditorium—there's not a million people up there. It's one face smiling up at you that lets you know you're doing the right thing.
The first theater [the 600-person Blender] was tiny, and the second one was a little bigger [the 3,200-person Roseland]. We played longer than we were supposed to—we played over an hour-and-a-half, and our first set this tour in Greensboro, we played an hour-and-a-half.
Even if there wasn't a scalping problem I'd feel like this, but this makes it more of an issue: We should give 'em the best possible show we can and not give them an exactly one-hour show. Play from your heart, let the music play you, you know? And these times, I mean this economy isn't exactly easy right now. I just feel like an honest obligation to really do the best I possibly can for our fans and really make it an enjoyable experience. Something they can really take home and remember and share with their friends and relatives so they can say, “Hey, I went to this great show the other night.” You know, I want that. The thing that's farthest from my mind is to be a nostalgia act. And we're really mixing it up—we're reaching deep into our bag of tricks, our bag of songs. We have at least 200 songs we can pick from and that's really fun for me. I mean, it makes it much more interesting. because we never quite play 'em the same [laughter].
You have already played a number of rare songs this run, including “King Solomon’s Marbles.” What led the band to bust out that number?
Actually, my girlfriend mentioned that to me. She said, “Bill, why don't you play 'King Solomon's Marbles,' I love it.” And I listened to it and said, “Gee, I just don't know if we can do it,” and I brought it into rehearsal, the idea, and we put it on...we'd actually tried playing it five years ago, in the other configuration and it just never got workin' right. So we just tried it again, and it worked well. That's a tricky song man, that's not easy. We also did “The Eleven,” and that one is a musical genius. I love that song. It's in 11 but you can break 11 up into many different numbers, you know? Basically it is a 3/3 in a 2, but we also break it up into a 2 beats and an 8 and 3, and it is like “Oh man, my foot's up in the air, it's not goin' down on the floor to dance.” It's just really fun to experiment with the music. It just makes it more interesting for us and gives us more room to play farther out.
And the other songs you brought back were “I Need A Miracle” and “Big Railroad Blues.”
Yeah, that and “Unbroken Chain,” which has some interesting parts. The solo for “Unbroken Chain” is in 15/4 and 11/4. Well, you know what, it's funny. If you don't worry about how hard it is, it's easy to do it. You can hear how the music moves.
Who writes the band’s setlists at this point?
Everyone takes a turn at it. Bob writes it one night, Phil writes it one night, and me and Mickey are getting together tomorrow night to write the setlist. It's best that way because it's different, you know? If one person starts writing all the setlists, they'll become similar even if they're different—it's a strange effect. It's best to mix it up, it's best to stir the pot as much as you can. It makes the music much more interesting.
As opposed to The Dead’s other outings since Jerry Garcia’s death, the band seems to be focusing almost exclusively on Grateful Dead material. Do you plan to work in any solo numbers or other latter day compositions?
No, not this time. We have so many classic Dead songs, we feel we have tons of material to relate to and that we don't have to do anything new. The newness comes from the jams because they're different.
Last night [4/15/2009, Charlottesville, VA] Warren Haynes just became a member of The Dead for real. He sounded different, and he felt like he really melded into the band more—he wasn't playing with The Allman Brothers, God bless him. But he sounded like he was really playing with the Grateful Dead.
Was there a certain song or point in the show when you realized that?
Yeah, a couple songs. He sang “High Time,” which is a very difficult song, and it brought me to tears. He sang it just like you couldn't believe. And we've been playing a lot longer now, and we're older and wiser but we can sit back on the tempo and it sounds kind of like a bassy band. We don't have to rush through it, and we can let the words do the work as they're supposed to do on a song like that. So that comes to mind a lot from last night and everything. I thought a lot about that.
With that in mind, how would you say playing with your trio has changed your approach to The Dead?
It's just opened me up a lot more. The trio allows me to be really free, and I play as much or as little as I want in the trio. And the guys in the band are so good that—I don't know, I can't say specifically how it's changed. It just allows me to play music more and in different styles, so that would be the benefit of it is bringing in different colors, different flavors, bringing that into the Grateful Dead, that's how it's changed it. I can't be real specific and say I've learned this or that. It's just that my playing is more stylized. I think of a song and I think about, “God, what's that song saying, what do the words in that song mean?” and I really go for that, I go for the poetry of the song even more.
Are you planning to record with the trio any time soon?
Yeah, we actually are going to record, we actually have CDs that are ready to be released, they have to be post-mixed, and they're gonna come out on my website. I have a brand new website, actually, that we're working on today as we speak, and it's going to be out pretty soon. We're going to put up a lot of music for download.
And I assume that will feature some songs you did with Robert Hunter?
Yeah, there will be some original Hunter songs, there will be some covers, you know. Hunter's written a bunch of songs for me. I'm also playing with Papa Mali. He and I are one day apart on our birthdays, and we get along like old friends. It's just a natural mix, you know? And Hunter's been writing some songs for him that are more than incredible, so I'm doing that band as soon as The Dead's over. I'm playing with Papa Mali for a while, and then I'm doing a few weeks with my band. So I'm doing a lot of playing, and that's really fun for me ‘cause it's mixing it up, it's not all one band.
How did you first meet Papa Mali?
We first met at the Oregon Country Fair last year. He was the headliner on the main stage, and I sat there and watched him and went, “This guy's for real man, I like this guy.” Then we met, after that he came over to my trailer that I was staying in and you couldn't separate us, we talked for hours. It was just one of those natural things, you know? You can't plan it, you can't make it happen. And then we started playing together, I've played four or five shows with him now. I played New Year's Eve, this last New Year's Eve over in Maui and we had a great show there. It actually turned out to be kind of thunderous, we had too many people, we had four or five-hundred people that couldn't get in, they blocked the streets and the police were just going nuts, and they came in and grabbed me from behind to stop me playing. They were really afraid because we only had like 200 inside and a few hundred people outside and all the cars were parked anywhere. They were dancing on top of the cars because they could hear the band inside.
It became a general admission show even though it wasn't supposed to be.
Yeah, it was far out. But the police didn't think so [laughter]! Nobody got hurt. Everybody was there to have fun. But the police don't like it when you block the streets with the cars I guess.
Speaking of unlikely collaborators, Tipper Gore sat in with you last night on percussion.
Yeah, it was fun as hell.
She's a drummer right?
Yeah, she drums. Mickey asked her up. He told me before hand, I said, “yeah.” And I know Tipper too, she's a sweet, sweet lady. Mickey said, “Bill, Tipper's gonna join us on the last song, how's that?” I said, “Sure, far fuckin' out man!”
Was former Vice President, Al Gore there?
No, he wasn't there, but she was.
I also heard that you had a tour of the White House.
Yeah, we went to the White House, and we got to meet the president, everybody this time. Last time we met him was when we played at the Atlantic Ball at the inauguration, but just the guys in the band met him, and I felt kind of sad about that. I wanted my girlfriend and her daughter who I am very close to meet him. So this time everybody came—all family members, it was sweet. We talked to him and there's a great picture of me shaking his hand looking him right in the eye, you know? So we had a good time.
When was your first trip to the White House?
I was there for [California Senator] Barbara Boxer’s daughter's wedding and that was a while ago. Clinton was president, and I had complete free reign of the White House. I could go anywhere, it wasn't a tour. That was the true all-access pass for the White House.
But, you know, what's really far out is that I feel like we really have a connection with the people that are running our country now. We did not have that will Bush’s people, obviously. I actually know [Obama adviser] David Axelrod—he is a really good friend of a jazz pianist that I play with in Hawaii. They went to college together, and he was standing right out there in the middle when we played D.C. He was standing right out in front of the band, it was good. You can't miss him, he's a big 'ol tall guy, you know? There's a strength and a power that you can suggest ideas that can help the country.
We had a wonderful meeting with President Obama, and we talked with David Axelrod for over an hour, and it became a question-and-answer period. And all of us had different questions. Myself and my lady friend are very environmentally oriented and we asked him environmental questions and other people asked him cap sending questions, and we asked about the Congress. David admitted that Congress is the biggest problem—getting them to move on issues is tough, even the democratic side.
We just learned a lot about what it's like to be president. It's not a lot of fun because Obama’s really isolated, but he's a people person. He wants to talk to you, and he wants to hear your point of view and what you need and what you think is wrong and so forth and so on. And because he's president, he can't do that because he's highly protected, as he should be. So it's sort of frustrating—he can't even use a Blackberry.
So anyway, I'm very hopeful that there's going to be a lot of change in this country and all the people that worked for the other administration—all the people that are still there—are very, very happy. They love their new boss. I'm just concerned about the Congress blaming Obama for over-spending when $350 billion were spent by Bush right at the end of his last period of time in office, and where did that go? What happened to it? And the other thing that really bothers the heck out of me, is that FOX News is always pointing fingers and saying the worst stuff about Obama, right. I just don't understand that, I mean I really don't get that. Don't they see this person could really help the country? This country could really fly faster if that kind of stuff wasn't goin' on. So there's my political point of view.
What political issues are closest to you?
There's some environmental issues I’m connected with like wailing. For instance, the Japanese whaling down in Antarctica—it's illegal. It's been made a sanctuary, and you're not allowed to hunt or fish in there, and the Japanese go in there without any problems with these amazing factory ships that go 40-50 knots on the water, and kill up to 2,000 humpback whales a year. Two-thousand. The whaling season just ended in Kawaii, and it makes me very sad.
Bush didn't care anything about that. He wanted to drill for more oil. Blow the tops off of more mountains to get coal, you know?. That's one of my important issues. Also, there's some dolphin issues over in Japan that are really sad. Dolphins are the highest in mercury because they eat the most fish, and then they sell the dolphin meat that they slaughter to the local people, and the people aren't aware of this. They think they're buying fish, and they don't have any idea that the mercury is 40 times higher than the supposed accepted level. And for me, there is no accepted level of mercury. Our bodies don't need mercury. Zero percent should be the accepted level. So those are some of the issues I'm getting involved with right now. I'm working with people that are directly involved with the dolphins in Japan. I'm an ocean person, you know? I live in Hawaii, and I love surfing. And I do fish—I just don't do it in a way that hurts the fishery. We need a mental change in our country. We don't need to make guns anymore, we need to make solar panels. We need to make wind generators. I'm serious man. And we don't need to drill for oil anymore. The Obama administration is not into going into Alaska to look for oil, thank god. There's not even that much there by the way.
He seems to be doing a good job so far even with all the problems.
What a brave man to run for president after somebody fucked up the country so badly. Jesus Christ, you know? And he took time to see us, isn't that nice. All the time and all the work he's gotta do, he took the time to see us. And you know why? Wasn't a long time, but he really likes people. He really likes to look you right in the eye and see who you are and hear a few words from you. I don't think Bush or Nixon were quite like that. We went into the room next to the Oval Office. It's called the Lincoln room. That's where Nixon hid a bunch of his tape recorders and stuff, so we immediately made jokes and looked under the table, and all those guys were laughing. Those same bunch of guys came to the show the next night.
Well, you guys are used to a taper section.
Finally, I heard mumblings about a possible new Dead studio album. Is there any truth to that rumor?
No we aren't planning on going into the studio. We don't talk about that right now. We're just concentrating on being on tour, doing really well. Anybody wants some tapes, get up there and be in the taper session man.